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Monsters or human beings? Why 'The Act of Killing' is such a difficult watch


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Joshua Oppenheimer has been making documentaries that depict the realities of political violence for several years, and his latest film The Act of Killing is quite unlike anything the world has seen before.

Act of KillingIt documents the Indonesian genocide that followed the CIA-funded military overthrow of the Indonesian government in 1965. Anti communist purges saw the massacre of Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) members in Medan, North Sumatra.

The Act of Killing focuses on the life of Anwar Congo, a man who led a band of self-proclaimed gangsters into mass killings of Indonesians - over one million of whom were slaughtered in the conflict. Anwar and his men are now, decades later, bona fide celebrities and source of national pride; the horror of past events has been conveniently swept under the carpet of the 'winning side'. What happens inside the mind of a person who can stand by a corpse and smile, holding up a V for Victory sign? This is what the film forces its audience to explore.

Speaking to Indiewire, Oppenheimer says that he ‘came to the film in solidarity and collaboration with the survivors’. But the resulting documentary doesn’t tell the story of the victims – instead it explores the strange world of Anwar by allowing him to re-enact his past deeds for the camera, in the style of Hollywood film classics that he loves. Oppenheimer describes the tradition in documentary filmmaking of concentrating on victims as being one that is often born out of great selfishness; to be able to see through the eyes of survivors and victims of severe hardship reassures us that our lives are in solidarity with them, and distances us from the perpetrators. Giving us an insight into the life of a John Wayne fan who repeatedly stresses that his favourite method of execution is strangling his victim with a wire a la Italian mafia, is harder to swallow.

The moral questions that are raised by this approach to the re-telling of the Indonesian genocide are many, and complex.

Jakarta Globe expresses a belief in the positivity of a greater understanding of the past:

"I just wonder how we can make peace with ourselves as a nation and society if we keep on refusing to embrace the bitter truth of history".

But is it ethical to allow perpetrators of mass murder a voice? Why explore the minds of those who, surely, we are morally obliged to condemn? Is there a danger of actually glorifying mass killing by expressing the perspective of those who committed it?

Werner Herzog, who edited the film with Errol Morris, said to the director, "You know, Josh, it's very refreshing to see a film about perpetrators, because we're much closer to perpetrators than victims.  All of us."

And that comment really cuts to the very heart of the film – what interests Oppenheimer is the imaginative structures that underpin the impunity of the perpetrators, who are all fairly high ranking individuals, not just executioners. In the process of exploring this and becoming increasingly familiar with Anwar, Oppenheimer said he has learnt that ‘we lie to ourselves all the time. I don't buy these terms monsters or psychopaths, these are just ways that we assure ourselves that we're different from these people. We're not. […]These people are human beings, and those are moral categories, designed to reassure ourselves.’

The Act of Killing interrogates the desensitisation towards violence that Anwar and his men are capable of; they show incredible lack of conscious remorse for their deeds, yet Anwar suffers nightmares and had a traumatic reaction to watching some of his own scenes back.

"I showed them clips, when I showed Anwar the scene at the end where he calls in his grandkids to watch himself be tortured, after that he watches the part where the wire goes around his neck, and he has a very visceral reaction, he starts retching, the same way he does on the roof at the end."

Oppenheimer goes on to stress that even though Anwar may be acting, his reaction to the film-making process is authentic. "But you hear there's something performative in his words on that roof, where he's saying he knows what he did was wrong.  He's trying to hold it together with his words, but his body is rebelling and is sort of telling its own story.  The demons are trying to escape from his body and they can't get out.  He's a broken man by the end.  That's the sad end of Anwar's story in the film. But he's not angry at me because he knows what he did.  We went through a big journey together".

The journey was a difficult one; Oppenheimer describes the pain that he and his entire crew felt during filming, which demanded a great degree of repression to be channeled into the work in order to be able to proceed from one scene to the next.

"The audiences reaction has been really overwhelming.  People come out really wrecked […] You become shocked, then there's a place of numbness but still hopefully fascination, then something intriguing starts to open up with Anwar's nightmares and a crack begins to grow and by the end of the film hopefully one begins to feel very deeply for him again."

What is fascinating about this film is its refusal to offer its audience the comforting reassurance that we are as far removed from these perpetrators of genocide as we like to believe. The truth is, these are old men who are fathers, friends and lovers of Hollywood gangster films, giving us their best de Niro impressions and relishing the opportunity to act for the documentary.

It’s also important to remember that these are people who received advice and support from the American consul during the killings. The US backed the military dictatorship that was in place and continues to offer support to the so-called reformed Indonesia. Do we really have access to a moral high ground in which we can dismiss them as ‘monsters’? It’s 'tempting and comforting' to label them that, says Oppenheimer. It affirms our own perceived moral superiority, which is a fallacy given our colossal ignorance to the socio-political conditions that surround the growth of men like Anwar.

Oppenheimer describes a moment when ‘the deputy minister is totally confused as he's watching them shoot one of the scenes.  He comes in and says this is gonna make us look bad, just like Adi does, but then he realizes that looking bad is the source of his power.  And so, he turns 180 degrees and says keep this, this is good.’

There is a great tragedy to recollections like this one. Some have criticised Oppenheimer for not interviewing anyone who survived the ordeal. As Catherine Shoard writes for The Guardian, ‘ it doesn't matter. We know this was genocide.’ What The Act of Killing shows us instead is far more astonishing.

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